For a number of years I viewed 3D printing as a solution looking for a problem. I visited the Consumer Electronics Show and saw people printing accurate 3D chocolate renderings of their heads, which whilst being very clever, is largely useless. I wondered to myself where the technology was going, but in the last year or so things have changed and 3D printing seems to be finding its feet in terms of technology and applications, confirming its place in our future.
3D printing is now impacting the electronics supply chain from innovation to fulfillment; this is in part due to price. We are currently seeing 3D printers priced below $2,500, opening the technology up to consumers and innovators, while creating the opportunity to build 'print farms' with multiple printers producing small runs efficiently and economically. Another factor driving adoption is the use of more 3D printable materials, making more complex and more usable products possible.
Here are a few of the ways 3D printing is impacting the electronic supply chain.
Design made simple
Starting at the coalface of innovation, 3D printing is providing inventors with the ability to test their ideas much earlier than would normally be possible. 3D printed versions of products can be produced from Computer Aided Design (CAD) files and shared with potential consumers, investors and manufacturing partners. The ability to create products in three dimensions on a CAD system was seen as revolutionary 20 years ago, and those 3D renditions of products helped designers share their vision. We are now in an era where that on screen rendition can be produced with accurate weight, size and texture and used to finalize a design very early in the product realization process.
This is a term I hear more and more. People are looking to get real prototypes built quickly and cheaply, often as proof of concept, but also to test the validity of a design before going into more traditional manufacturing processes. Bringing 3D print into the prototype environment can accelerate the process hugely, negating the need for complex tools or processes. At a recent event at a Silicon Valley EMS company, the conversation was around an environment where innovators could start the day with an idea, complete a design by lunch and leave that evening with a working prototype. This kind of rapid prototyping is exactly what the fast moving consumer goods market wants as windows of market opportunity become shorter and consumers become more fickle and demanding.
Tooling gone soft
Another area showing huge potential for 3D printing is in cutting out some of the expensive tooling iterations. And I mean expensive in both time as well as money. Creating 3D printed tools, even if they are just to prove a design, might mean fewer iterations, fewer engineering changes, shorter times to production and perhaps fewer $50,000 invoices for traditional hard tools that need to be remade for the smallest change.
Fixtures for manufacture & test
Contract manufacturers are starting to use 3D printing for their own manufacturing needs rather than just for the products they make for their customers. Many are using 3D printing to build jigs and fixtures to hold odd shape components during the production process. This could be a test support fixture, a jig to hold an odd shape sub-assembly while it is being assembled or soldered, or a one-off tool used to assemble a part into a hard to reach area of a product. These are all things that simplify the process and make the EMS more flexible and agile.